Governor extends suspension of portions of OPMA and PRA, limits on city actions

Last Thursday Governor Inslee signed an emergency proclamation extending his earlier one that suspends portions of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and the Public Records Act (PRA) and limits actions taken by public agencies in the state.

The original proclamation suspended provisions in the OPMA that were tied to in-person meetings, to allow for legislative bodies such as the Seattle City Council to conduct business through online meetings. It also suspended requirements for in-person public comment. However, it also prohibited public agencies — including the City Council — from taking “action” on matters that aren’t either required for responding to the COVID-19 emergency, or “necessary and routine.” The proclamation also suspended deadlines in the Public Records Act tied to when public records requests must be responded to by city staff.

The restriction on agencies taking action has caused some consternation as the Council and other public agencies try to interpret what qualifies as “necessary and routine” — and how far they can stretch the definition of what is a response to the COVID emergency. A perfect example is the payroll tax proposal sponsored by Council members Sawant and Morales: the first $200 million of revenues go to relief payments for Seattle residents, but the much larger impact of the bill is its $500 million per year tax to pay for programs unrelated to the COVID emergency. But they are being proposed together, which raises the question of whether such a bill is prohibited from consideration under the Governor’s proclamation.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Governor did not clarify the language in question when extending his proclamation; the language is left unchanged.

The Governor’s extension leaves the proclamation in effect through May 4 — a surprisingly short period of time for an extension, though consistent with several other COVID-related proclamations that he extended at the same time.

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